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Safavid Empire

Safavid Empire

The geographical middle child of the Gunpowder Empires, the Iranian-based Safavid Empire is often overshadowed by its neighbors, the Ottoman Turks and the Mughal Empire. After the fall of the mighty Timurid Empire, Shah Ishmael I set out in the 16th century to restore the former glory of Persia by creating the Safavid Dynasty, believing themselves to be the descendants of Islamic religious leader Muhammed, the Safavids enforced the Shia branch of Islam throughout the Middle East, often coming into conflict (and copying the methods of) their neighbor and rival, the Ottoman Turks.

Location of Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire was located in the Eastern half of Ancient Persia (comprising modern-day Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and parts of the Caucasus). Located within the Middle East, the land was arid and full of deserts, but the Safavids did have access to the Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf, and the Arabian Sea.

Safavid Empire Map Study SmarterFig. 1- Map of the three Gunpowder Empires. The Safavid Empire (purple) is in the middle.

To the Safavid Empire's west was the more powerful Ottoman Empire and to the east the wealthy Mughal Empire. Although the three empires, collectively referred to as the Gunpowder Empires, shared similar goals and the religion of Islam, competition due to their close proximity and ideological differences within their religion created many conflicts between them, especially between the Safavids and Ottomans. Land trade routes flourished throughout the Safavid territory, due to its connection between Europe and Asia.

Gunpowder Empires:

"Gunpowder Empires" is a term used to define the prominence of manufactured gunpowder weaponry within the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires. The term was created by historians Marshall Hodgson and William McNeil, though modern historians are hesitant to use the term as an all-encompassing explanation for the rise of the three Islamic Empires. While gunpowder weaponry was often used to great success by the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, it does not paint the whole picture as to why these specific empires rose when so many of their contemporary competitors failed.

Safavid Empire Dates

The following timeline provides a brief progression of the Safavid Empire's reign. The Empire fell in 1722 but was restored in 1729. In 1736, the Safavid Dynasty had come to a final end following two centuries of dominance in Iran.

  • 1501 CE: Founding of the Safavid Dynasty by Shah Ishmael I. He expands his territories over the next decade.

  • 1524 CE: Shah Tahmasp replaces his father Shah Ishamel I.

  • 1555 CE: Shah Tahmasp makes peace with the Ottomans in the Peace of Amasya after years of conflict.

  • 1602 CE: A Safavid diplomatic group travels to the court of Spain, establishing a Safavid connection to Europe.

  • 1587 CE: Shah Abbas I, the most notable Safavid ruler, takes the throne.

  • 1622 CE: Four British East India Companies assist the Safavids in retaking the Strait of Ormuz from the Portuguese.

  • 1629 CE: Shah Abbas I dies.

  • 1666 CE: Shah Abbas II dies. The Safavid Empire is in decline under the pressure of its neighboring powers.

  • 1736 CE: Final end of the Safavid Dynasty

Safavid Empire Activities

The Safavid Empire was built upon and thrived through continuous military conquest. Shah Ishmael I, the first Shah and founder of the Safavid Dynasty, conquered Azerbaijan in 1501, followed by Hamadan, Shiraz, Najaf, Baghdad, and Khorasan, among others. Within a decade of creating the Safavid Dynasty, Shah Ishmael had captured almost all of Persia for his new empire.


Title for a ruler of Iran. The term is from Old Persian, meaning "king".

Safavid Empire Qizilbash Study SmarterFig. 2- Art depicting a Safavid soldier, called a 'Qizilbash'.

The Qizilbash were an Oghuz Turk Shia military group loyal to Shah Ishmael I and were essential to his victories against his enemies. But the Qizilbash were as ingrained within politics as they were in warfare. One of Shah Abbas I's many decisions as ruler of the Safavids was the reformation of the Safavid military. He established a royal military equipped with gunpowder rifles and loyal only to the shah. Notably, Shah Abbas I copied the Ottoman's Janissaries military group in establishing his own caste of foreign slave soldiers, called the Ghulam.

The fear of Shah Abbas I:

During his reign, Shah Abbas I witnessed multiple revolts within his kingdom in support of deposing him and replacing him with one of his sons. As a child, his own uncle tried to have Shah Abbas I executed. These experiences made Shah Abbas I fiercely defensive against conspiracies. Not even trusting his own family, he blinded or executed anyone he suspected of treason, even his own sons. After his death, Shah Abbas I left no heir capable of filling his seat on the throne.

The Safavids were almost always at war with their neighbors. For two hundred years the Sunni Islamic Ottomans and Shia Islamic Safavids battled in Iraq, capturing, losing, and recapturing the city of Baghdad in their many confrontations. At the height of Shah Abbas I's reign in the early 17th century, the Safavids held power in eastern Persia (including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan), as well as Georgia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Safavid Empire Administration

Although the Safavid Shahs obtained their power through family inheritance, the Safavid Empire greatly valued meritocracy in its administrative efforts. The Safavid Empire was divided into three groups: the Turks, the Tajiks, and Ghulams. The Turks typically held power within the militaristic ruling elite, while the Tajiks (another name for people of Persian descent) held power in governing offices. The Safavid Dynasty was inherently Turkish, but it openly promoted Persian culture and language within its administration. The Ghulams (the slave military caste mentioned before) rose to various high-level positions by proving their competence in battle organization and strategy.

Safavid Empire Art and Culture

Safavid Empire Shahnameh Art Study SmarterFig. 3- Shahnameh art piece from 1575 depicting Iranians playing chess.

Under the reign of Shah Abbas I and Shah Tahmasp, Persian culture experienced a period of great rejuvenation. Funded by their Turkish rulers, the Persians created fantastic art pieces and wove famous silken Persian rugs. New architecture projects were based on old Persian designs, and Persian literature saw a resurgence.

Interesting Facts about the Safavid Empire:

Shah Tahmasp saw the completion of the Shahnameh ordered by Shah Ishmael I, a half-mythological, half-historical illustrated epic intended to tell the history of Persia (including and especially the Safavid's part in Persian history). The text contained more than 700 illustrated pages, each page much like the picture depicted above. Interestingly, the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp was gifted to Ottoman sultan Selim II upon his ascension to power within the Ottoman Empire, revealing that the Safavids and Ottomans had a more complex relationship than a simple militaristic rivalry.

Religion of the Safavid Empire

The Safavid Empire was devoted to the Shia branch of Islam. The main differentiating belief of Shia Islam from Sunni Islam is the belief that the Islamic religious leaders should be direct descendants of Muhammed (whereas the Sunni believed that they should be able to elect their religious leader). The Safavid Dynasty claimed ancestry from Muhammed, but historians dispute this claim.

Safavid Empire Islam Quran Study SmarterFig. 4- Quran from the Safavid Dynasty.

The Shia Muslim religion was influential in Safavid art, administration, and warfare. To this day, the heated rivalry between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam continues in the Middle East, in many ways fueled by conflicts between the Sunni Ottomans and Shia Safavids.

The Downfall of the Safavid Empire

The decline of the Safavid Empire is marked by the death of Shah Abbas II in 1666 CE. By then, tensions between the Safavid dynasty and their many enemies within captured territories and neighboring states were reaching their zenith. Its local enemies were the Ottomans, Uzbeks, and even Muscovy Russia, but new enemies were encroaching from afar.

Safavid Empire Ottoman Empire Battle Study SmarterFig. 5- 19th century art depicting the Safavids battling the Ottomans.

In 1602, a Safavid embassy traveled through Europe, making contact with the court of Spain. Just twenty years later, the Portuguese seized control of the Strait of Ormuz, an important seaway passage connecting the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. With the help of the British East India Company, the Safavids pushed the Portuguese out of their territory. But the significance of the event was clear: Europe was taking control of trade in the Middle East through their maritime dominance.

The wealth of the Safavid Empire plummeted along with their influence. By the early 18th century, the Safavids were on the precipice of destruction. The power of the Safavid government declined, and its neighboring enemies pushed into its borders, seizing territory until the Safavids were no more.

Safavid Empire - Key Takeaways

  • The Safavid Empire ruled in Iran and many of its surrounding territories comprising the ancient land of Persia from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century.
  • The Safavid Empire was a "gunpowder empire" between the Ottoman Empire and Mughal Empire. The Safavids were a Shia Muslim Empire and rival of the Sunni Islam-practicing Ottoman Empire.
  • Persian culture, art, and language were promoted and thusly flourished through the Safavid ruling administration. The ruling title of the Safavid Empire, the "Shah", comes from Persian history.
  • The Safavids were militaristic and engaged in many wars with their neighbors, especially the Ottoman Empire.
  • The Safavid Empire fell because of its weakening economy (due in part to the intrusion of European powers in trade around the Middle East, especially at sea), and because of the rising strength of its neighboring enemies.


  1. Fig. 1- Map of the Gunpowder Empires ( by Pinupbettu (, licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
  2. Fig. 4- Safavid Era Quran ( by Artacoana (, licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (

Frequently Asked Questions about Safavid Empire

One of the Safavid's primary exports was its fine silk or the Persian Rugs woven by artisans within the empire. Otherwise, the Safavids acted as an intermediary for much of the land trade between Europe and Asia. 

The Safavid Empire started in 1501 by Shah Ishmael I and ended in 1736 after a brief period of resurgence. 

The Safavid Empire traded with the Ottoman Turks and Mughal Empire, as well as European powers through land or the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. 

The Safavid Empire was located in modern-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, and parts of the Caucuses. In modern times, we would say it was located in the Middle East. In ancient times, we would say the Safavid Empire was located in Persia. 

The Safavid Empire fell because of its weakening economy (due in part to the intrusion of European powers in trade around the Middle East, especially at sea), and because of the rising strength of its neighboring enemies. 

Final Safavid Empire Quiz


What branch of Islam did the Safavid Empire practice? 

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Shia Islam 

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In what ancient land was the Safavid Empire located? 

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What was the collective name used by some historians to refer to the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires? 

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Gunpowder Empires

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Define Shah.

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Title for a ruler of Iran. The term is from Old Persian, meaning "king". 

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Who were the Qizilbash? 

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An Oghuz Turk Shia military group loyal to Shah Ishmael I.

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What Ottoman enslaved military organization did the Safavid Ghulam imitate? 

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The Janissaries 

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What was the rule of Tajiks (people of Persian descent) in administering the Safavid Empire? 

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Persians took power in high-level governance positions, whereas the Turks took power in high-level military positions. 

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Was Persian culture embraced or suppressed under Safavid rule?

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Embraced. Persian culture, language, and art were promoted within the Safavid administration. 

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What was a reason mentioned in the article that explained the downfall of the Safavid economy in the early 18th century? 

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European intrusion into trade in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean (including the Arabian Sea). 

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What empire was the greatest rival of the Safavid Empire? 

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The Ottoman Empire 

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